Making sense of exhibitions, latently
I have been auditing a course this semester on pedagogy and social difference, led by Aparna Mishra Tarc, that examines how theories about the psychic experiences of learning might help us to understand how people make sense of others’ (often traumatic) experiences. Central to the course have been questions about what it means to try and sympathize with others’ testimonies and experiences of difference, and why it seems that humans are not capable of learning from—and therefore not repeating—the conflicts of the past. The texts we have focused on in the course have been a mix of theoretical, self-reflexive scholarship about the psychic and ethical implications of teaching or learning from others, alongside fictional and autobiographical representations of the psychic difficulties that accompany learning and identification (J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, Deann Borshay Liem’s First Person Plural, Todd Haynes’ Dottie Gets Spanked and Eve Kosofsky Sedwick’s A Dialogue on Love, for instance, have each been important case studies).
Though the course has explicit connections to my own academic research into the critical pedagogical potential of colonial-era photographs, it’s also prompted me to reconsider how I think of exhibitions and public programming in the visual arts as a form of public pedagogy. In particular, Deborah Britzman’s concept of “difficult knowledge”—the idea that learning from social trauma is always a psychically difficult task that involves the learner vacillating between love and hate—seems useful in analyzing how viewers make sense of their interactions with art. Throughout her work, Britzman underscores that learning is not only a difficult task that involves being psychically vulnerable, but one that often disrupts our sense of linear time. Difficult knowledge upsets our assumptions about the cause (in this case learning about a social trauma) and effect (conducting oneself in a more ethical manner) relationship that happens for learners who approach representations of social trauma. For Britzman, knowledge is often latent: it comes much later than the moment of learning, at a point that is difficult, or even impossible, to pinpoint or represent. Learning is therefore not only a difficult process to engage in, it is equally difficult to represent.
Britzman’s emphasis on the latency of difficult knowledge seems to help to explain why some exhibitions or public programming about social trauma or experiences of difference don’t seem to immediately generate fruitful discussions. This is something my friends and fellow curators cheyanne turions and Kim Simon have both raised in their own writing and programming and is something I think many of us have experienced at the end of a screening or panel discussion: the awkward silence that ensues that might seem to represent a refusal to or anxiety about engaging in the discussion about social trauma, ethics and difference. But I know that I am sometimes one of those silent people, and that that silence does not necessarily mean I have not engaged in or tried to learn from the text, film or discussion at hand. Oftentimes, I think deeply or even obsessively about the learning object after the event, making sense of it in my own interior monologue and in my discussions with others. And it is often only much much later that I think I have made some sense of that original encounter with the object, only to have to reevaluate it again upon new encounters with representations of social trauma.
So the question for me then becomes how to facilitate this latent sense-making or knowledge that art and its public discourses might prompt for people, especially when the economic and temporal practicalities of creating exhibitions and public programming sometimes make one-off events a necessity. Kristina Lee Podesva has suggested that one way that art criticism might tackle this temporal lag is by revisiting exhibitions through critical texts several months or even years after their original presentation to see what sense can be made about them with more historical distance. But I’m curious about how else we might engage with the latent knowledge that exhibitions and contemporary art can help spark and foster.